Sundance 2012: Thick With the Anxieties of Our Times

There's no question that the 2012 edition of the Sundance Film Festival was stuffed with films in some way touched by the psychological and practical fallout of economic crisis.

It was blatant in documentaries such as Lauren Greenfield's Queen of Versailles, in which a nouveau riche time-share mogul's gaudy lifestyle is threatened by the mortgage crisis. The struggle to stave off total wipeout is given more poetic and evocative treatment in Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's city symphony documenting the devastating effect that the elimination of manufacturing has had on Detroit.

The inherently degrading nature of a service-based economy gets bloodless horror-movie treatment in Compliance. Based on real-life incidents, Craig Zobel's second feature takes place in a fast-food joint in which a female, middle-aged middle manager is persuaded by a male phone caller posing as a cop to detain and strip-search the pretty blond counter girl. When the manager has to go back to relieve the restaurant's overburdened employees up front, the voice tells her she needs to find a male to supervise the still-naked alleged thief, and soon, that "supervision" escalates to sexual assault. As exploitative of an audience's good will as it might be, Compliance is not an exploitation film, exactly; it's more of a procedural on the worst-case-scenario endgame of labor abuse, in which uneducated minimum-wage workers are subservient to their potential future selves and everyone needs a paycheck too badly to let morality trump authority.

Things are not going so well in Detroit.
Tony Hardmon / Loki Films
Things are not going so well in Detroit.

Whether or not it's a product of austerity, many narrative features took on the shaky-cam "immediacy" once primarily associated with documentaries. In director Mark Webber's The End of Love, the actor (who was one of the exes in Scott Pilgrim) and his toddler son, Isaac, play actor Mark Webber and his toddler son, Isaac, in a loose narrative about the young father's struggle to juggle single parenting with his libido and showbiz ambitions. Some of the story elements injected to give the film structure ring false, but the ample material of Webber just interacting with his kid achieves the sense of real life onscreen that so many of the other movies at Sundance seemed to be shooting for.

The best narrative film I saw at Sundance was Simon Killer, which is built around an attractive, enigmatic young person whose recent trauma both muddles his vision and complicates the film's view of his behavior. Simon claims early in the film to have been a neuroscience student specializing in the way the brain relates to the eye, and the gorgeous cinematography is constantly drawing attention to the way eyes — and cameras — work, with extreme focal changes amplifying the tension between foreground and background and pulsing color-field abstractions acting as transitions. Slowly revealed as a pathological liar, Simon might or might not be an expert in the science of perception.

 
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